As part of our Confirmation class’s Comparative Religions curriculum, we recently visited the Islamic Center. It is located at the other end of Lexington St. (behind Kohl’s) but seems worlds away. Out of respect for their center’s traditions, the women in our group were asked to dress in loose fitting clothes from head to toe and cover our heads with a scarf. After rummaging through my closet, I finally found suitable clothing (one of those occasions when being a pack rat pays off!). Dressed more or less as a Muslim woman, I headed off to the Islamic Center.
On my way, I stopped off in the post office to mail a letter. As I got out of the car, I suddenly realized that part of the experience of learning about Islam was learning what it was like to wear this kind of wardrobe in public. There were only a couple of people there, but they definitely looked at me very differently than people normally would. For the rest of the evening, the clothes themselves, as much as the wonderful talk by the Imam and the experience of watching the women pray, enabled me to understand something about what it was like to be Muslim. I realized that in our society, someone dressed as a Muslim must constantly be feeling like people are looking at them with concern or suspicion. They don’t have the ability to blend in or be one of the crowd like we do, even though we are a small minority in our society.
The central theme of Passover, is the journey from slavery to freedom. We are each commanded to experience the sort of persecution that our ancestors endured, then rejoice at our emancipation. We are told to seek out strangers and make them our friends because we know what it is like to be unwelcome. As it says in Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our tradition tells us we should invite guests to our seder to fulfill this commandment.
Passover is the holiday when we look inward and evaluate our prejudices. In this age of continuing hostility in the Middle East, with heightened concern about the security of Israel, uncertainty about the conflict in Syria, instability in Lebanon and Egypt, the rearming of Hezbollah and the nuclear initiatives in Iran, we have a particular propensity to have a visceral reaction to someone dressed as a Muslim. Do we do a double take when we see someone dressed in traditional Muslim or Hindu garb? Do we make assumptions about who they are, how we might feel about them, even though we don’t know them? One of our students asked the Imam what the biggest misconception was about people of his faith. He got a little defensive and asked us what we thought the answer to that question might be. One of the kids suggested that maybe it was that all Muslims are violent. The Imam replied that this is a very big problem because the media blames an entire people for the terrible actions of a few.